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Ponder your fate, May 7, 2010
(Warning: This review might contain spoilers. Click to show the full review.)
The game is conducted in standard text adventure style for movement and interaction. To reinforce that understanding, the first scene of this game takes place in a not-initially-apparent dream where the player is an armored knight encountering a fire-breathing dragon. Outside of that dream, the same play mechanisms are in place, with a few minor exceptions.
Dialog is an important element of the story of the game and as such, it eschews the default ďask aboutĒ and ďtell XĒ and instead uses multiple choice to determine what the player will say. There are often four choices to choose from and the responses are not terribly different from each other in tone, but greatly despondent in meaning. The reason for this is that the game uses these discussions as the principal means of determining WHY the player is saying what he is doing. In a way, the game is doing a low-level psychological study on the player through his actions. Instead of giving a report at the end, however, the game uses the playerís responses to subtle guide the remainder of the game to match the rationale behind the playerís actions.
This is an incredible concept, one executed few times before or since because it introduces a very obvious drawback: it causes the scope of the game to increase exponentially. The story branches quickly become innumerable and a single developer will have a hard time keeping up unless they place some pretty strong limitations, which is what Victor did in The Baron.
The game tells a single story where all events have been fixed and there is really only one ending. While that may seem stifling for a game trying to explore the varied motivations behind player actions, it both is and it isnít. It is rather confining in that no matter if your intentions are noble or cynical, there will never be an opportunity to turn away from your fate.
On the other hand, it is liberating because avoiding your fate isnít the point of the game.
The protagonist is a father, which, in and of itself, is full of the complexities of raising children but this game narrows down on a single facet of this character: his daughter has been destroyed by the misguided actions of a single man. The game refers to the man as the Baron, and the progression of this game is the fatherís attempt to confront the Baron and plead for him to stop and free his daughter.
Each step of the fatherís journey, he encounters beasts driven by instincts they find hard or impossible to resist. (Spoiler - click to show)At first he meets a mother wolf who is searching for any food in the cold winter to feed her cubs. Then he encounters a stone gargoyle brought to life but only as a result of feeding on the happiness of others, leaving them bitter and depressed. Finally, you meet the Baron himself, who begs for understanding and sympathy. He admits to being a beast and denies the ability to be anything else.
In the end you reach your daughter and get to talk to her. Through the dialog you have with her, you decide if you have the same determination now as you did when you set forth to confront the Baron or if your vigor has waned. Whether you will let the Baron take her again, or if you will remain vigilant and end the cycle.
Itís a fascinating setup for a dialog over ethics and morality. Itís designed not to challenge your puzzle solving skills but your philosophical stance on conflicted situation. The actions of the Baron are reprehensible, but does his struggle over his nature make a difference in how we perceive him?
As a game, unfortunately, there is less here to be impressed by. It lends itself to two playthroughs on average, one to realize what is going on and see the twist, and a second to make the choices that matter to you. The branching dialog trees arenít revolutionary, even if theyíre not typically used in this manner. The on-rails nature of the game means that if you arenít intrigued by the initial setup, you will probably be fairly bored by the time you reach the Baron. There is also one point at the ruins near the Baronís castle where I got fairly turned around because it wasnít clear to me how certain areas of the ruins connected to each other. So, the one place where the game isnít strictly linear suffers from slightly muddled navigation.
And then after you complete the game, there is the matter of closure. The game doesnít offer you answers or even much in the way of a definite future for any of the characters. The point of the game, as I was alluding to before, is to make you, the player, think and feel conflicted, and not necessarily to give resolution to the conflict between the protagonist and the Baron. Thatís hard to except, at least initially.
The end of the game is not the end of the story, because the story has no end. Every victory for good or triumph of evil is still just one more day done. Even someone who has done undeniably evil things in the past and holds no hope for redemption, still must face the next day. And even if you decide that the protagonist does succeed in suppressing the Baron that day, heíll still have to do it again the next day, and the day after, until one of them gives up forever.